Report Back: The US Social Forum Detroit 2010

Another City for Another World


Was I really in the USA? It was June 22 in the hot afternoon and there were thousands of people in the streets, people singing, people joyful, people angry, people with signs, with banners, with costumes, people giving you fliers and newspapers and petitions, people who cared enough to go out and let everyone know that we still have the right to assemble in public. But where, I kept wondering, were the usual wall-to-wall cops with their truncheons and tear gas and sound guns and dozens of less-lethal weapons? What happened to the customary crowd control and the chain-link free speech zones? Forget it for a day and remember where your own culture comes from! The demo rollicked on for hours beneath the summer sun, producing continuous surprises like the queer marching music of the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, the puppet-portrait of Justin Dart who launched the disability rights movement two decades ago, the elegantly dressed gentleman from Code Pink calling for an end to the occupation of Gaza, the forest of sunflower-signs with seeds of “clean air,” “good jobs” and “justice” raised up against the skyline…

My sense of disbelief / relief only increased when the whole thing ended at the immense Cobo convention hall, some of the most straight-laced municipal architecture you could imagine, whose humming escalators and carpeted corridors would be bustling for a week with literally one thousand workshops, as well as nightly plenary sessions, a people’s media center, a large number of info tables and booksellers, and other opportunities for “world social shopping.” Twenty thousand people had come from around the country and the hemisphere to see if they couldn’t somehow contribute to a better tomorrow. They did, we did, it was a great event for the American Left and hopefully something to seriously build on in the future.

The second US Social Forum would have been a major breakthrough wherever it was held, as the first one in Atlanta proved by all accounts. A “love child of Seattle” as one blog sweetly put it, the USSF represents an American homecoming for a global movement that first cut through the corporate media-screen with the five-day protest and urban insurrection against the WTO in 1999, but was then almost immediately repressed in the USA and dissipated by the consequences of 9/11. Unlike here, the counter-globalization movement unfolded powerfully across Europe, in parts of Asia and Africa and above all in Latin America, where the first World Social Forums were held from 2000 onwards. US activists attending the WSF in Brazil or Venezuela expressed their admiration and were told, “You have to do something in your country, where all the problems are coming from.” A daunting demand, if you’ve ever been out on the deck of good ship Amerikka! But the organizers took the time and put in the immense amount of work required to make sure that the USSF would not only be an academic panel-fest or a glorified anarchist black-bloc party, but instead a meeting place and strategy session for the most oppressed grassroots groups in this country. Hundreds of workshops on concrete local, regional, sectoral and national struggles showed how right they were. What you could see and feel and hear and constantly meet at the USSF were the people who get punched and pummeled and ripped off by this society every day and who have long since started organizing and fighting back, forming the multicolored base of a nascent grassroots social movement whose like has not been seen for decades. Plus, the choice of venue for the second edition gave everyone who attended a chance to start closing the gap between theory and practice by just stepping outside the door and starting to engage with the city.

[this is Greg and Larry's immense truck garden, in former Corktown, a short walk from the center]

Detroit, as all the pundits think they know, is a disaster city, the symbol of a failed auto industry and the site of a dreadfully dangerous fire-belching ghetto where you better not walk around unarmed at night. More accurately in my view, it’s the first urban center in the US where an unsustainable industrial capitalism has entirely collapsed – and despite the many hardships attending that process, it’s the friendliest city in the entire country, the only major urban area where it’s impossible to walk down the street without ending up in conversation in five minutes or less. What’s more, it’s one of the places where the American Left first became a major social force via the sit-down strikes of the 1930s, and it’s also one of the great cities of the Black Power movement. Among the memorable events of the Forum was wandering into a plenary session at Cobo Hall and hearing the unionist General Baker describing the events of the 1967 rebellion, which was the largest and most violently repressed urban uprising of the 1960s. Baker and many others went on to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, whose story you can read about in a book called “Detroit: I Do Mind Dying,” or watch in a fascinating documentary called “Finally Got the News.” Detroit was also home to the black activist and social theorist James Boggs, the author of The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook (1963), and his no less insightful and rambunctious wife and collaborator Grace Lee Boggs, who studied Hegel as a teenager, translated Marx and worked with C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya in the 40s and 50s before settling in Detroit. Grace is still alive and kicking today, in fact she celebrated her 95th birthday during the Forum! Her tradition of organizing and theorizing seems to be the closest thing in the US to something like the Italian autonomist movement with its capacity to focus on objective conditions and subjective possibilities in our own time – except that Detroit is a very different place and time from Torino or Bologna. Check out “Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century” by Grace and Jimmy, or her autobiography, “Living for Change,” or the Boggs Center website – but above all, go hear this amazing woman speak, not about the past but about the present and the future.

“Another world is possible. Another U.S. is necessary. Another Detroit is happening” – that was the triple slogan of the 2010 US Social Forum. The spirit of that last bit is extremely contagious. I got it a year ago while attending the Allied Media Conference, a youth-oriented festival which moved to Detroit several years ago and has been strongly influenced by Boggs Center people like Shea Howell and Rich Feldman. A bunch of us had come as part of a continuing exploration of what we call the “Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor.” We heard Charles and Sandra Simmons of the Hush House speak on that occasion, and our minds were blown when Mama Sandra, dressed in her African robes, looked out at the crowd and said “You look delicious,” and then went on to welcome everyone by talking about love. Not exactly academic nonspeak! This year we rented a big house for collective lodging, gave a workshop on the MRCC at the Forum and also reached out to a Detroit neighborhood around the old King Solomon Baptist Church, by setting up a big shade tent contributed by the Canadian architect Adrian Blackwell. Probably it’s difficult for anyone who hasn’t been there to imagine this impoverished urban environment where the remaining houses are scattered among ruins and stretches of returning prairie, nowhere more peaceful and intense than in the Zone 8 district where we were. It was beautiful to offer grilled food and cold drinks to the people from the area or from the Forum, for example Yusef Shakur, the former self-described Zone-8 thug who became an author and an activist after reconnecting with his father in jail… Yusef came with a group called “All of Us or None,” a movement of formerly incarcerated people including a man who went to Ravenswood High in East Palo Alto, CA, just like I did, except it was ten years earlier, he was black and he got a long-term prison sentence rather than a diploma. Rashaun Harris also came to visit from right across the street, or rather the field, at the Hush House where they just set up a new community garden – because that’s another thing I should mention, Detroit is the leader in the urban garden movement that’s sweeping the US. That’s because the ruins of industrial capitalism call out for solutions that involve people instead of using them up, exploiting them and moving on to some juicier territory. Hanging out and talking with sharp, lucid and generous people like Rashaun definitely clues you in to some of the progressive things that are happening in this world.

Rashaun Harris of Hush House

The thing to remember is, we had a pretty nice picnic out on the grass and the organizers and participants of the USSF put on a massively successful experiment in popular education, but Detroit is no picnic and what’s gonna happen with both gardens and education in that city is tremendously uncertain. Since attending Allied Media and also Grace Boggs’ 94th birthday party in 2009, members of our group have been following the story of Bing and Bobb, respectively the mayor and the state-appointed school manager of Detroit. What they’ve done in the face of the city’s long-term decline and the flight of its white and middle-class tax base to the suburbs is to propose closing down some 40 schools and privatizing public services, while teaming up with local elites and big-money foundations such as Kresge to concoct a “right-sizing” program that would shrink the city by razing low-density neighborhoods. Their still-hazy and somewhat secretive plan seems to involve concentrating all the efforts on the downtown sector and a “creative corridor” around Cass and Woodward avenues, where real-estate interests including Mayor Bing himself could reap big profits from fresh investment. Another publicity pitch would be the installation of an industrial farm on the newly cleared areas of the east side, to go gentrified and green at the same time, and make a mockery of all the efforts and ideals of the urban gardening movement in the process. For details, check out the excellent article entitled Another Detroit is Happening, But Which One do We Need? Anyone who looks at this emerging renewal plan cannot fail to be reminded of the post-Katrina pattern of disaster urbanism in New Orleans, where the neoliberal program for American cities became painfully clear. The difference is, the deal is not done yet, people who lived throught the financial crisis are much more aware of the dead-ends of corporate capitalism then they were during the Bush-bubble years, and Detroit is a uniquely combative city with grassroots and union-based organizing forces that will not be left out of any bargain.

I came away from the US Social Forum feeling both inspired and acutely aware of the turning point that this country has reached over the past year. In California, a major student movement arose for the first time in decades, to protest what looks like a total makeover of the higher education system. In Miami and New York, movements like Take Back the Land and Picture the Homeless began taking serious moves toward reclaiming housing left empty by the expropriations of the financial crisis. Meanwhile in the Gulf, the criminal carelessness of BP exposes the same kind of greed and aggression that has already been made so clearly visible by the investment banks like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and the others. The leftist theory that Obama would only begin to push back against corporate power if he himself was pushed by popular outrage and protest is finally looking a little less theoretical. But only a little less – and just as the USSF ended, the G-20 summit in nearby Toronto exploded into the robocop-driven violence that is the now the standard fate of popular protests all across the world. Of course, a peaceful political gathering of 20,000 leftists in Detroit garnered almost no mainstream media coverage, unlike the corporate prime time given to the police riot in Toronto or to any meeting of a hundred desperate Tea-Baggers. And the reality check is obvious: The big money owns the major media, and what interests them is either the spectacle of their own violence or an inchoate populism that (they think) can be manipulated around the old no-tax, anti-government themes. We know that our movements have to grow organically and build real alliances that can’t just be coopted for some calculated advertising splash in favor of the green-washing establishment.

As Immanuel Wallerstein remarked in his talk with Grace Lee Boggs on June 24, the Social Forum process is one of the major constructive forms to come out the forty-odd year history of the New Left, reflecting its foundational aversion to hierarchical pyramids and yet also providing concrete possibilities for effective self-organization. But if the New Left emerged from an essential need to break with its governing hierarchies, that was also for a reason. What I understood once again in Detroit, by meeting people from across the country and hearing their testimonies in workshop after workshop, was that game-changing social movements like those of the Sixties may find their true roots in generosity and love, but they do not exactly arise from a happiness explosion. They arise from resistance to the kinds of intense oppression that are at work everywhere in the US right now, and they are created by people suffering under the pressure of ruthless interests whose negligence and cruelty few can imagine until they feel the effects on their own skin. What we need is to organize on a larger scale, but out of direct experience, on the basis of direct actions that change the landscape of everyday life. The Social Forum was one step toward that larger scale of grassroots organization. It took place in a city that has a lot to tell us about the history and the future of the American condition. All kinds of seeds have been planted this summer in the urban gardens of Detroit.

all photos by Claire Pentecost

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